On Relinquishing My Mahathera Status (part 2: Ancient Rules of Discipline and Love)
Ummon said: The world is such a wide world. Why do you put on ceremonial robes at the sound of a bell? —Mumonkan, case 16
When I first became a Theravada Buddhist monk, ordained in the Burmese Taungpulu tradition, my primary purpose was not to become a follower of a Burmese tradition or to live like a Burmese monk. It was also not my purpose to live like a western monk, whatever that is supposed to mean. My purpose for being ordained into the Theravada Buddhist Sangha was to follow the teachings of the historical Gotama Buddha as well as I could manage, and since he was teaching ascetic monks in ancient north India, my purpose was, consequently, to live like an ancient Indian monk.
Also, my original purpose was not to be an expert on monastic discipline, or Vinaya. I mainly wanted to meditate while living a life of renunciation, simplicity, and quiet. However, I felt that so long as I had voluntarily joined a monastic order I should conscientiously endeavor to follow the rules as well as I could. And, as it turns out, there are LOTS of rules of monastic discipline. Just about every action in life is regulated by them. There are plenty of rules regulating even cleaning one’s teeth or using the toilet. But I wanted to follow the rules strictly, partly because of the Buddhist ethical trinity of sīla, samādhi, and paññā, or morality, concentration, and wisdom, the concentration and wisdom were elusive and largely beyond my ability to master them, especially at first, whereas I could at least follow the rules and have the outward morality part nailed down. So I became almost fanatical in my strictness, and caused some trouble with more easygoing Burmese monks because, for example, I refused to go anywhere by arrangement with a woman, or to eat food that was not offered properly, or even to pretend to accept money. A few times my insistence on strict Vinaya resulted in the abbot leaving for another monastery to do penance for broken sanghādīsesa rules, because the Burmese do not do it according to the Pali texts and so I refused to acknowledge it as legitimate penance—and according to Vinaya, all monks at a monastery must approve. I really didn’t care much what other monks were doing, although I would grumble at the sloppier and laxer ones; I mainly just wanted to live according to what the Buddha taught, and the most reliable source for that was the ancient Pali texts, and so I did my best to live like an ancient Indian ascetic.
This was not too difficult in Burma, alias Myanmar. The lifestyle of common villagers out in the countryside is even now not so different from the lifestyle of the common person in the Ganges Valley 25 centuries ago. Men still take their team of bullocks out into the fields to plow in the morning, and girls still walk to the well or river or reservoir with a clay pot balanced on their head to fetch water for the family. Also the culture is devoutly Buddhist, and anywhere in Buddhist Burma I could simply take my iron alms bowl into a village or town in the early morning and devout Buddhists eager for merit would be happy to put food into it. I could wander around and live in caves or under trees or in cemeteries; or those same villagers eager for merit would gladly build a simple little hut in the woods nearby for a monk to live in. Aside from visa extensions handled by a supporter in the big city of Yangon, life was free, just as it was for monks living in the Buddha’s time.
|receiving alms in Lay Myay village, in upper Myanmar|
Burmese Buddhist monasticism, like medieval Catholic monasticism, has become quite corrupt in many ways; most Asian monks don’t even try to follow Vinaya correctly, much as most Christians in the west blandly disregard such basic biblical admonitions as “Gather not up your treasures upon the earth.” Even so, in Burma I could avoid monks and established monasteries much of the time. (A famous Italian monk who lived in Burma during British colonial times, and whose name I don’t recall, also famously avoided all monasteries for the simple reason that very few of them are “kosher” or “ritually clean.”) It is literally against the rules, at least in accordance with the orthodox commentarial tradition, even to set foot on the property of a monastery for which monks have spent some of their own money; the rules are so strict that, according to the commentaries, there is even the following scenario: A monk buys a mango with his own money, eats it, and throws the pit on the ground. The mango pit sprouts and grows into a mango tree. One hundred years later a different monk, completely clueless with regard to the origin of that tree, sits in its shade—and he thereby commits an offense of wrong-doing (dukkata āpatti) for making use of something paid for with money handled by a monk.
So the rules for monks are very restrictive, and are designed to be so within a context of ancient north Indian culture. The rules concerning interactions with human females, and the acquisition and consumption of food, are about as strict as those concerning money, too. But in Burma the culture was similar enough to ancient India, and following those rules was inconvenient at times, but not prohibitively difficult or inconvenient.
(After many years of relatively extreme strictness I did start fudging on a few rules even before coming back to the west. The only rule I am aware of breaking continually from the beginning of my ordination is the one prohibiting a monk from looking into a mirror unless he is investigating some kind of sore on his face: shaving without a mirror is a pain, and a Thai Sangharāja who wrote a book on Vinaya said using a mirror to shave is allowable, so that was good enough for me. Eventually, even before coming back to the USA, I began opening doors while holding my bowl, urinating while in a standing position (like most men in the west do), and drinking water while naked (it is very hot in Burma, and I often dispensed with wearing clothes while inside a cave). All of this is against the rules. I have fudged on many more since moving into a lax Burmese temple in California, with avoiding such places being not nearly so easy as it was in Burma; but even so, even now I have never broken the rule against wearing extra clothes, even in sub-freezing weather, and I still avoid eating food that is not offered properly, which results in occasional fasting.)
What all this is getting at is that a “primitive” Buddhist lifestyle, as prescribed and literally required in the Pali texts, is hardly a viable option in the west. Even relatively strict and “exemplary” monks in the west are fairly shameless with regard to this stuff. And many western laypeople, even those who consider themselves to be practicing Theravada Buddhists, not only don’t understand Vinaya but do not see the point of it, seeing it as an incomprehensible case of shackling oneself to a foreign, long dead, and extremist culture. “What do you mean I have to offer the food into your hands on the morning that you eat it? I have a job to go to! I’m busy!” I have lost friends over this kind of predicament: I go somewhere with a friend, say, on a camping trip; and although we are hanging out as friends the other person has to pay for all the expenses and act as my servant besides. It may work with Asian Buddhists who are conditioned to see ordained monks as literally a higher form of life, but for many western Buddhists it is objectionable, and the situation is of course not optimal.
So a bhikkhu who lives in the west, with very few exceptions, either greatly hampers his own freedom of action, for example by spending his life essentially in a cell, or else he is obliged to be sloppy in following Vinaya; and I do like freedom very much, and I decided long ago that if I don’t want to or can’t follow the rules of monastic discipline relatively strictly, then I should not wear the robes. (Once when I was still a very junior monk I found myself visiting New Nalanda University in India, where a nice Thai lady in our group was offering money to the monks there. I railed at her vehemently about how it is not right to give money into the hands of monks because it is helping them to break the rules and is wrecking their morality. The Thai lady defended her action by saying that the monks there couldn’t live without handling money, whereupon I retorted, “Then they should live somewhere else.” I have had similar ideas about monks living in a place like Alaska or northern Canada, where not only would three robes quickly lead to freezing to death but during winter there may be no dawn, and thus no strictly allowable time to eat. The thing for me, though, is that I just don’t want to live in tropical Asia anymore. I want to live in my own native country where people speak my language—and where there is a real need for Dhamma even though the culture is not very accommodating to renunciant monks.)
|under a bodhi tree near Bagan, by the Irrawaddy River|
Different monks have different ways of looking at things, and I am not implying that monks who do not follow Vinaya strictly in the west are all necessarily bad or unconscientious or any such thing; but I personally would rather be unordained and without the more or less sacred obligation to follow the Discipline than a sloppy and unconscientious monk who doesn’t follow the rules, according to my own standards and my own conscience. If I converted to Christianity I’d be haunted by dogmas like “Gather not up your treasures upon the earth,” and “Take no thought for your life, what you will eat; neither for the body, what you will wear.” Summing it all up: If I am voluntarily to join an Order with mandatory rules, I feel that I should follow those rules, or else withdraw from that Order. And as I have tried to point out, the rules do not fit the modern western world very well at all, and I’m tired of SE Asia.
Which leads to a rather personal ramification of this issue of rules and freedom of action in the west. I have never stopped being heterosexual by nature. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for women, and a natural attraction to some of them, and have an innate desire for love and intimacy in my life, especially with a woman who truly suits me, who is compatible with me, who can blend with me to the extent that two people can. I have always felt an empty place where a mate naturally would be; and celibacy has probably been my sorest trial as a bhikkhu, although I have managed not to get myself excommunicated, and, as I’ve pointed out before, have usually been abnormally strict in following rules. On top of that, as I’ve also mentioned before, I have felt for more than ten years that some deep human interaction could be a good way to continue, even as a spiritually oriented person, considering that solitude has run its course.
Maybe I’m too high-testosterone to be contentedly celibate; I came from an oversexed family anyhow, and my father, and his father before him, could not live happily, for very long anyhow, without a mate. I have managed for many years, but as I say, it has not been easy. The benefits I received from meditating in solitude made celibacy worth the discomfort and aloneness for many years. At any rate my male instincts may help to explain my unusually “macho” style of Buddhism in Asia, where I was seen as a kind of Buddhist Rambo.
So what I am getting at here is that I want a woman, someone to love and be close to; and I already know who she is, I have my heart set on her already, and she is truly lovely. So there is that, too.
I fully realize that most adults are sexually active, and that most people are not particularly happy—demonstrating that having a mate is no guarantee of happiness, just going with statistics. A romantic relationship leads to rougher seas in Samsara, more downs as well as ups, and usually more attachments. Emotional neutrality is left behind. Those who are in a romantic relationship are not fully satisfied—but then again those who are celibate aren’t either. The First Noble Truth always applies, no matter where we are, or how we live. In this case I feel that no longer struggling against a deep part of my nature, and simply acting in harmony with it, with a woman who is “my type,” and mentally and spiritually attuned to me, and me to her, amazingly so, and who is adorable besides, is the “sensible,” in some respects even the “wise” thing to do. And soon there will be no Vinaya rule against it.
I suspect that even mentioning this aspect will have some people disregarding all that came before it and declaring that I have simply been “dicknapped.” Though this could hardly have arisen if all the other conditions, previously discussed, were not already in effect. Also she and I have known each other for rather a long time (literally years), although we have never touched each other physically, and both of us have given this particular case a LOT of thought. We share a strong affinity, a deep energetic resonance, and being together feels right. Krishnamurti did have a point when he spoke against struggling against one’s own nature.
So these, plus the one mentioned in the previous installment (namely that I stopped making progress in Buddhist formal contemplation and the monastic life), are my main reasons for opting for a radical change in social status and somewhat of a shift in my orientation in life. My intention is to continue living much as I do already, except for handling money, handling a woman, and feeding myself…although that, plus a few additional conditions, will be discussed in the next post.